One of the most striking features of David Hart’s account of the history of Christianity in his Atheist Delusions is the central place afforded to the practices of charity. Hart notes that such practices constituted a unique feature of the gospel that radically distinguished the early church from its cultural surroundings. Not only was ancient pagan religion seemingly incapable of sustaining charity and mercy as a meaningful praxis of devotion, but it lacked the theological foundations necessary to make service to “the least of these” intelligible. In Hart’s view, it was the shocking, cruciform rupture of the divine self-revelation in Jesus Christ — God manifested to humanity and the human beheld for the first time in the glory of the Son — that enabled us to truly grasp the inherent and universal dignity of human personhood. He writes,
“[. . .] the entire idea of human nature has been thoroughly suffused with the light of Easter, ‘contaminated’ by the Christian inversion of social order; our nature is [. . .] first and foremost our community in the humanity of Christ, who by descending into the most abject conditions, even dying the death of a criminal, only to be raised up as Lord of history, in the glory of God, has become forever the face of the faceless, the persona by which each of us has been raised to the dignity of a ‘co-heir of the Kingdom'” (p. 180).
With such theological discussions of incarnation, cross and resurrection, redemption, participation, personhood, deification tightly in the background, Hart gives some helpful historical catalogues illustrating the various ways in which this cruciform charity took shape in the life of early Christians. To quote at length,
“There was, after all, a long tradition of Christian monastic hospitals for the destitute and dying going back to the days of Constantine and stretching from the Syrian and Byzantine East to the Western fringes of Christendom, a tradition that had no real precedent in pagan society (unless one counts, say the valetudinaria used by the military to restore soldiers to fighting form). St. Ephraim the Syrian (A.D.C. 306-373), when the city of Edessa was ravaged by plague, established hospitals open to all who were afflicted. St. Basil the Great (A.D.C 329-379) founded a hospital in Cappadocia with a ward set aside for the care of lepers, whom he did not distain to nurse with his own hands. St. Benedict of Nursia (A.D.C. 480-537) opened a free infirmary at Monte Cassino and made care of the sick a paramount duty of his monks. In Rome, the Christian noblewoman and scholar St. Fabiola (d. A.D.C. 399) established the first public hospital in Western Europe and — despite her wealth and position — often ventured out into the streets personally to seek out those who needed care. St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407), while patriarch of Constantinople, used his influence to fund several such institutions in the city; and in the diakoniai of Constantinople, for centuries, many rich members of the laity labored to care for the poor and ill, bathing the sick, ministering to their needs, assisting them with alms. During the Middle Ages, the Benedictines alone were responsible for more than two thousand hospitals in Western Europe. The twelfth century was particularly remarkable in this regard, especially wherever the Knights of St. John — the Hospitallers — were active. At Montpellier in 1145, for example, the great Hospital of the Holy Spirit was founded, soon becoming a center of medical training and, in 1221, of Montpellier’s faculty of medicine. And, in addition to medical care, these hospitals provided food for the hungry, cared for widows and orphans, and distributed alms to all who came in need” (p. 30).
“Christian teaching, from the first, placed charity at the center of the spiritual life as no pagan cult ever had, and raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor to the level of the highest of religious obligations” (p. 164).